Michelle Nickolaisen


How to build a better marketing team

Illustration by Havana Nguyen

Work today doesn’t look like it did fifty years ago — or even ten years ago. Aside from the ways in which more powerful technology is affecting our work, more and more people are going freelance or working remote. The number of full-time remote workers is up 115% over the last ten years, and 43% of Americans said they worked from home at least part of the time in 2016. When it comes to freelancers, recent estimates put them at 35% of the U.S. workforce, with a strong upward trend over the last several years.

The ripple effect from these shifts will be felt far and wide, in a number of places and ways. But one specific thing they mean is that we don’t have to work the same way we used to.

Case in point: a number of startups I work with have shifted to having a hybrid marketing team, comprised of a mix of remote/in-office workers and freelancers/full-time employees. This type of team has a huge number of upsides — but there are some pitfalls to avoid, too.

First, let’s talk about what a hybrid marketing team even is:

The hybrid marketing team: a breakdown

For the purposes of this post, I’ll be using the Clubhouse team as an example. At Clubhouse, the marketing team consists of two internal employees and two remote freelancers:

  • Camille Acey, VP of Customer Success, who reviews and edits all blog posts and other content/copy before they go out the door, contributes content of her own, writes and schedules newsletters, and gives input on our marketing strategy from a customer-focused POV
  • Pavla Mikula, Customer Success Lead, who conducts customer interviews and sometimes writes content for the blog
  • Michele Rosenthal, who does all of our illustrations
  • And, of course, me — I do most of the content writing, along with editing/proofreading of work from others, occasionally copywriting, social media work, and co-creating a strong content strategy with the rest of the team

Camille and Pavla work on-site sometimes and remote other times, like the rest of the Clubhouse team. The two Michel(l)es are both contractors who work remotely.

A few other examples of hybrid team structures:

  • One editor/content marketing manager who is an employee and a team of freelance writers (good for a startup that’s jump-starting their content marketing strategy)
  • Internal content marketing manager, who oversees big-picture strategy but doesn’t do hands-on editing, with freelance editor(s) and writers (great for businesses that need to produce a lot of content, without having the content marketing manager be the bottleneck in the process)
  • In-house marketing manager and a freelance content marketing manager who also does most of the writing (well-suited for very small businesses or businesses who also have a strong “traditional” marketing component — paper or TV ads, etc.)

Each of these examples has its pros and cons. In general, the issue with having one person overseeing, approving, and managing multiple freelancers is that they almost inevitably become a bottleneck. This has happened in every team I’ve been on with one editor for multiple people, especially when the editor is also doing other work.

Avoid bottlenecks:

If you’re going to have more than one freelance writer, plan on working with a freelance editor as well, or make specific plans to prevent bottlenecks in the process. Figure out how many pieces your content marketing manager/editor/employee needs to edit in a week to keep up with your editorial calendar, and if those metrics aren’t being met, have a contingency plan in place.

Why would you set up a marketing team this way?

If you’re dead-set on hiring employees and employees only, you might wonder why it makes sense to work with freelancers and have them be a pretty core part of your marketing team and process.

There are potential downsides. Freelancers are notorious for being flakey (and I say that being one!), and sometimes, they’re less invested in your company or product than an employee is. The good news is, it’s fairly easy to weed out unreliable freelancers once you know what you’re doing — more on that in a second.

It’s hard to deny that a freelancer can be less committed to your business than an employee, but the difference might be much smaller than you’d think, especially with the latest generation of employees job-hopping often (and switching jobs being standard amongst startup employees).

The upside for startups? The overhead is much lower than with an employee. In addition to the time and money costs of recruiting, hiring, and onboarding a new employee, there’s the matter of salary for an experienced employee. At this point, I have eight years of experience freelancing and several years specifically working in the B2B SaaS space. Hiring someone with that level of experience wouldn’t come cheap.

Working with freelancers also makes it easy to work with a group of people who are really excellent at what they do. If you only have the budget for one employee, you get to pick one of the following:

  • Trying to find that rare (some would say nonexistent) marketer that’s amazing at everything digital
  • Hiring someone who specializes in what you think your marketing strategy will revolve around (and hoping the data doesn’t tell you that something else will work better)
  • Hiring something who’s really great at one thing and decent-to-good at other things

Someone who can write killer long-form blog posts isn’t necessarily the same person who can rock your web copy or email marketing. If you’re willing to work with freelancers, you can get all of those things done by experts for the same price or less than you’d spend hiring one employee, and get better results to boot.

Working with contractors also allows you to be more lean and flexible with your strategy. If a freelancer isn’t working out (or your marketing strategy shifts so that their skills are no longer needed), it’s easy to change your team structure, without having to think about severance packages or going through a full employee recruiting/hiring/onboarding process again.

Vetting your freelancers

With all of that covered, let’s talk more about clearing the biggest hurdle to working with freelancers: weeding out the flakey ones. When Clubhouse and I started working together, the initial process was:

  1. Interview with Camille to assess fit
  2. Interview with Kurt and Andrew (the co-founders) to continue assessing fit, talk about my background/experience/results with previous clients, etc.
  3. Provide references from previous client work to the Clubhouse team
  4. Send a proposal to Camille, Kurt, and Andrew outlining deliverables and goals for a 90-day trial period (I do a 90-day trial period for all of my retainer clients to make sure we’re a good fit — it works out well for everyone)
  5. Edits/revisions/adjustment to the proposal as needed, based on input from the Clubhouse team

All of this took around 4–6 weeks, and only after this process did we sign the contract and start the work together.

Asking for references when working together on a high-commitment contract is always a good idea, as is asking for some kind of proposal. Even if the proposal gets heavily modified before it becomes a contract, it’s a good way to test communication, responsiveness, and turnaround time. Same with scheduling meetings. If someone is 15 minutes late to every meeting, that’s a red flag.

From what I’ve seen, more and more companies are adopting a fleshed-out freelance “hiring” process similar to the above. When you’re impatient to get your marketing kickstarted, it can be hard to wait out the extra time to fully vet the freelancer, but in my experience, companies that hire a freelancer based on one email often haven’t been able to fully vet that freelancer first and regret it later. And, if your schedule allows for it, you can compress the above process into 1–2 weeks, which is a totally reasonable amount of time to wait.

What not to do

What I would not suggest is expecting contract workers to do any of the following as part of your vetting process:

  • Free work (i.e. a free test post)
  • “We’ll pay you if we like/use it” work
  • Discounted work

Any sufficiently experienced freelancer is going to turn that down. Why would they do free work for you, when they could be doing paying work for another client? Instead of helping you vet your freelancers, this method will probably result in you sifting through piles of less-than-stellar work and having to start all over.

There’s also the additional issue of independent contractor vs. employee, which can be tricky when working with freelancers on retainer. Make sure to review the IRS guidelines and create gig/job postings that fall on the freelancer side.

Freelancers, here’s what’s in it for you:

For the freelancer(s) in question, the biggest disadvantage is having most of your eggs in one basket. If a solid chunk of your monthly income comes from one client, and that working arrangement ends, then it can be hard to fill that gap quickly.

However, that’s also the name of the game when it comes to freelancing. That’s why you don’t plan on having certain clients indefinitely, follow up with previous clients regularly, and save up money during the good months to carry you through bad months.

The upside for freelancers is obvious: regular income. There’s also the opportunity to really dig your teeth into a project. I love writing, or I wouldn’t spend so much time on it — but it’s extra-fulfilling (and fun) to be able to get super hands-on with content marketing and strategy with Clubhouse in a way that I can’t really with clients who use me for “just” blog posts or sales copy.

Behind the scenes: Our marketing processes

We keep our marketing processes fairly lightweight to match the hybrid style of our team:

  • Every week, the marketing team has a 30 minute status meeting on Google Hangouts to discuss what got done during the week, talk about any blocks or things that could have gone better, and plan for the next week. I also send a weekly recap email of my work to Kurt, Andrew, and Camille, so there’s a running log of progress.
  • At the beginning of a quarter, we assess the work done in the previous quarter and have a 60–90 minute meeting to brainstorm strategies and goals for the next quarter. The notes from the meeting are stored in Google Docs, with the tasks put into Clubhouse immediately.
  • All of the work is, of course, tracked in Clubhouse. For example, with written content, we have columns set up for Ideas, Backlog, Up Next, In Progress, Ready for Review, and In Medium. The post or piece of content gets moved across the board, kanban style, as we work on it.
  • We use Slack to communicate when we aren’t having a meeting, Clubhouse to leave comments or updates on specific tasks, Buffer to schedule social media updates, and Google Docs to organize all of our content/copy/strategy notes and track revisions.

From beginning to end, our content creation process looks like:

  1. Come up with an idea (usually from a customer interview or on our weekly meetings)
  2. Create a story for it in Clubhouse and assign a date to it
  3. I write a draft in Google Docs, while Michele works on the illustration for the post (which is tracked via a separate story that’s linked to the blog post story)
  4. Once the draft is finished, I post the link to it in Clubhouse, add a task for Camille to review it, and sometimes ping her on Slack (depending on what her workload is like at the moment and how likely it is that she’ll miss a Clubhouse notification)
  5. After her initial reviews, I address all of her edit requests and comments/questions (we make heavy use of the edit suggestions and comments features on Google Docs)
  6. She reviews one more time and then gives me the green light to post (or sends it back for more edits)
  7. I put it into Medium, add the illustration from Michele and a few other finishing touches, and submit it as a draft to the Clubhouse blog
  8. Camille accepts and schedules it, post goes live
  9. I schedule shares for the post in the company Buffer account

Whenever I finish a round of work, I move the story across the board. The work that isn’t related to the revision process is handled via tasks on the story:

At one point, Camille and I were doing additional weekly meetings to check in, but we found they were overkill. For the most part, the team is happy communicating in Slack, and I personally loathe unnecessary meetings, so it works out well.

It helps that we have a very specific use case for each of our tools, instead of keeping some things in Google Docs and some in Evernote, or having some conversations on Slack and some via email. Teams where everyone is in-office can let this slide a little, but I highly recommend sticking to specific use-cases for each tool you use when it comes to remote or partially-remote teams.

I could talk about marketing processes forever (one of my favorite nerdy topics — feel free to let me know what your questions are for future posts!). The short version is, that’s what works for us and most of the successful hybrid marketing teams I’ve been on have used some variant of these processes.

But…does it work?

Since I know you’re wondering: does it work? Can you actually get results with this kind of team? The answer: yes! The hybrid marketing team at Clubhouse started at the end of 2016. From January to present of 2017, compared to the same time period last year, pageviews are up 181.77% and our user conversion rate is up 202.13%.

Obviously, that’s not just the team structure — having an amazing team won’t get results if you don’t have a strategy to implement. But that’s a whole other blog post.

The point is: when you’re starting a new company, or starting a new team within your company, you shouldn’t feel the need to stick with a traditional team structure. Hybrid teams are flexible, lean, and can get you results on a smaller budget — so why not give it a try?

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